1813: Visions of Terror Inspire Nation's Greatest Song
On September 11, 2001, people sat on their rooftops and stared out their windows. Others were glued to the television for days.
I don’t mean to stir up any painful memories, yet this is the best way I can describe it to you – the only way to understand how this particular battle of the War of 1812 inspired a national anthem.
Residents of Baltimore looked on with horror as the British attacked Fort McHenry in 1813, knowing that if the fort fell there would be little standing between them and the approaching troops. The British – along with many Americans – thought it was going to be a cakewalk, that the King’s Navy was far superior to the American defenses. While that may have been the case, the British forces were not at full strength due to a simultaneous conflict with Napoleon, and the American troops had a spirit and a fight that they were not anticipating.
There was no real victor of this battle – the British simply gave up on the idea when it became clear the Americans were not going to roll over. The battle’s significance is more about the American spirit: The bravery of the men who defended at Fort McHenry, who refused to surrender despite 25 hours of continuous shelling (miraculously only four people died).
Francis Scott Key was one of those aforementioned onlookers, only he was watching from a nearby ship as the battle forged on and the bombs exploded. The resilience of his country’s troops obviously moved him, and it was then that he is said to have gained the inspiration for the words of the Star-Spangled Banner (which he wrote shortly after). Myths and opinions vary about whether or not he actually was able to see the flag as the sun came up that morning.
I remember my own experience watching the coverage of September 11th and other acts of violence, and when I think back on that I start to gain a respect for what the citizens of Baltimore must have felt looking out their windows and seeing it actually unfold – like a young boy watching his father engage an intruder of the home.
We participated in the raising of the flag while we were there – a really nice experience – and I thought about the sense of relief the people must have felt that morning, when the rain cleared out and the sun came up and they saw the stars and stripes waving in the wind.
When they saw that our flag was still there.